Freedom of ideas in libraries and vaccination – both community issues


A library’s role is not to supress ideas – not matter how dangerous or loony I may believe those ideas to be, nor how wrong I think they are. That is why I support the State Library of Western Australia’s decision to provide a venue for a talk from people of the Anti-Vaccination Network on Tuesday 1 June.

I do not agree with the claim on the Sceptic’s Book of Pooh Pooh that the State Library CEO, Margaret Allen was putting the health of WA children at further risk.. I think they are shooting the messenger.

My tiny, fragile baby boy stopped breathing for over a minute as I was breastfeeding him on the day I took him home from hospital. We had waited for three weeks to take him home after he was born 2 months premature, so it was a huge shock to hear from the doctors that they suspected that he had whooping cough. Tiny babies with whooping cough don’t cough, just turn blue and stop breathing.

After a couple more months in hospital we took him home, but that experience clarified for me – vaccinating our children is a community issue. When a parent decides not to vaccinate they are not making a choice just for their own kids, but for mine as well. There is overwhelming good science supporting the health benefits of vaccination and I think it is a selfish and shallow to not vaccinate.

I have many other personal beliefs. I choose a mainly vegetarian diet for my own health and the health of the planet. I do not believe in an afterlife. I think depictions of violence that permeate our popular culture desensitizes people and begets more violence. I think that anyone who eats beetroot is slightly addled. When I go to work as a librarian, those beliefs come with me – however a key part of my job is providing access to ideas that are in direct conflict to what I believe is right for myself and for my society.

A library’s role is to provide access to information and connect people to that information. We seek to provide a balanced and varied collection, but not to judge the information we are providing, nor the people who are seeking it. This is not because it is almost impossible to please everyone, so libraries are take the easy way out by sitting on the fence and trying to be everyone’s friend.

When I buy a compilation of war comics for the Young Adult section, order ” Delicious Prime Ribs and how to Barbeque Them” for the non-fiction section, accept a donation from the Church of Scientology of one of Ron L Hubbard’s works or put a pamphlet from the Anti-Vaccination Network on the shelves I am doing something very serious and vitally important for our society and its freedom. I am protecting my own and my children’s right to think for ourselves. I am creating a society that trusts its citizens to think critically and make their own decisions with no source of information forbidden.

As a librarian I provide the information, but I do not author it. It is not my message, even if I work my hardest to build a structure where as many people can easily and immediately access that message and then make up their own minds.

If the State Library of Western Australia wanted to give space to the Beetroot Appreciation Society for a public outpouring of all things Beetroot then so be it. I may well organize my fellow Beetroot Abhorrers and ask for similar space to air our opinions. I would hope that people with a brain who attended the Appreciators’ event would use that brain to evaluate the arguments being put on the night. I would appreciate attending their forum and asking tricky questions about the dirt smell and that deep,dark purple ooze. I would be very glad that I lived in a society where there was a venue that protected my right to have ideas outside the mainstream.

I think the free and open discussion of ideas, like the decision whether to vaccinate a child, is a community issue. If a parent doesn’t vaccinate their child, they are putting my child at risk. If I claim the right to stop your ideas from being heard, then I am putting my own right to be heard at risk.

I am not arguing that ideas should be heard without rebuttal, argument, critical thought or judgment. I am arguing that they should be heard and that libraries exist as a vital institution to protect the right for that to happen.

Instead of deflecting the vaccination debate to one about whether loonies should be able to spout their bullshit in a library, it would be far more sensible to start public debate about what happens when as a population we uncritically accept bullshit and do not think for ourselves. This clear and entertaining cartoon showing the Facts of What Happened in the Case of Dr Wakefield (Mr Vaccination-Causes-Autism) by Darryl Cunningham is a great place to start.

Post 3 of the 30 posts in 30 days challenge.

8 thoughts on “Freedom of ideas in libraries and vaccination – both community issues

  1. I have to disagree with you on this one, Kathryn. Maybe it’s my academic library background, but I think it IS a librarian’s role to “judge the information we are providing” and the AVN has a long history of scaremongering through MISinformation. I think we are obliged to provide the best information to help people make the best decisions possible, and in this case one decision protects children and the other places all children at deadly risk.

  2. I agree with you Kathryn, even though I abhor the wrongheadedness of the AVN. Would love to see another forum on the importance and benefits of vaccination at the SLWA.

  3. I should probably have qualified my comments with “a public or State library that is supported by public funds”.

    I don’t think that exposure to dangerous ideas causes dangerous behaviour. Uncritical, poorly judged inconsiderate behaviour is the problem – not the information itself. To me it is more important that my kids are exposed to all sorts if ideas and are taught to think critically about them than it is that they are protected from what I personally disagree with.

    I agree that there is scientifically, documented proof that disproves the claims made by the AVN and that they zealously push their irrational beliefs and cause harm. They are not alone. Many religions , alternative medical practices, sexist, racist groups do the same thing. Still I believe that the freedom to hear and to decide for ourselves is something that should be protected by libraries…and to erode this is possibly more dangerous than the damage caused by dangerous ideas.

  4. I agree with you. Censorship is in itself a dangerous idea. Perhaps the most dangerous and damaging to free thinking of all. The problems that poor rationality creates can’t be solved by simply banning ideas. Eduction and debate won’t change everyone’s belief system, but they are still the best tools available.

    Thanks for the kind words and plug for my comic strip.

  5. Like Tom I come from an academic library background, and I also come from a science background. However, I think I disagree with Tom’s premise that we should limit the type of info we provide to “quality” sources. At least I think that is what he is saying? Sorry if I’ve misinterpreted you Tom.

    As an academic librarian working in an institution that teaches students in areas of nursing, osteopathy and medical imaging we provide material from both viewpoints for educational purposes. What our students do with that information is within their hands and (we hope) their critical thinking skills under the guidance of their lecturers. Ideally we do need to provide quality information but as we are supporting students who will deal with these questions IRL, we also have a responsibility to provide information from all kinds of sources even when some of that information is not the highest quality we would like. We “judge the information we’re providing” in terms of how it is going to help our future nurses etc do their jobs. This less than stellar information is what their patients are going to be using. Our future health professionals need to have some idea of what to do with that.

    Personally, like you I think vaccination is a community issue. Even though I like to think everyone is entitled to their own choices and opinions, this is one issue where your choice does effect more than your own self and immediate family.

    (Incidentally, that book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is highly enlightening WRT the Dr Wakefield thing).

  6. OK, I’m obviously in a minority here (which is fine), but I haven’t been persuaded so far. Allowing a publicly funded library to be used to spread MISinformation, as opposed to actual information, seems to me a mistake. It’s the old “crying fire in a crowded theatre” analogy about the limits of freedom.

    Real parents are terrified. Real babies die. It’s not an acceptable use of public resources.

  7. your post has raised a valid and interesting debate. I’m not really for vaccination and I thought long and hard before taking the step to have all of our children vaccinated, final decision was based on living in community abiding by what is best for the community in which we choose to live.
    Censorship and free speech:- there are defn instances where public libraries should be discerning & practice leadership.

What do you think? Let us know.